At my father's death I start gathering tools, intending to unearth things that might help to warm his house. My learning takes a long time. A deep mine can enrich the owner. Those down in the shafts have to deal with lethal gas, explosions, cave-ins, and black lung disease. They have reasons to fear the job. My efforts to do it are childish and perhaps cowardly.
1. Digging Just Below The Surface.
I ask a few questions but receive fewer answers. My mother says she never got along with her in-laws. They seem to be a secretive bunch. Visiting my father's hometown alone, I am able to meet only his mother, my grandma. Her answers to my queries veer off from Dad onto people I know nothing about. Leaving her, I drive back through Ohio's Wayne National Forest, and its strangeness parallels my understanding of these relatives.
Everything seems irregular, the steep hillsides, the gouged-out, strip-mined land, the patchy, state-planted bushes and trees, intended to cover up the mess. This camouflage doesn't work. Easily visible are boarded-up entrances to old deep mines, yellow acid-poisoned creeks supporting cattails and reeds, and blackened patches of earth where two-cylinder oil rigs grunt, pumping riches into large metal tanks. Even worse is the smoke curling up inside the forest. In a few shadowed areas I spot red flames breaking through fissures in the ground. Coal is still burning under the surface.
I've heard several explanations for this disaster. The most credible is that striking miners reacted to the importation of scabs by deliberately setting the coal seams afire, sending coal cars full of burning oil deep into the tunnels. That was more than 50 years before my presence, but the effects are still evident. Several people were killed and/or maimed, and the underground fire continues to spread, burning along the wide, connected seams of coal. Even interventions from the federal government failed to stop the fire. Strip mining and low employment resulted, as well as an ever-present smell of coal smoke and sulfur.
In the "Devil's Oven," as I've heard this area called, the coal seams burn to nothing. That allows surfaces to collapse suddenly and bring down whatever they support. Sinkholes occur in the woods but also beneath homes. This history now seems to describe my father metaphorically. Something was burning away in his mind and body, hollowing out his strength until his outside collapsed. His sudden death has certainly shown me that whatever seems solid is probably not. But what are the facts? I still don't know.
I stop in the village of Shawnee and buy a vanilla ice cream cone. It melts in my hand while I sit in the car gazing at a baseball field where Dad played centerfield. Why can't I figure him out any better? Are people keeping secrets from me? Am I obtuse? Or is everyone simply inarticulate, unable to communicate about the past?
2. Going Farther down
I enlist in the Marine Corps, Grandma Vernon dies while I'm overseas, I go to college, begin teaching, marry and start my own family. My father and his family remain mysteries like Mars and Venus, out-of-reach, complicated things I've heard of, maybe glimpsed, but don't understand. I wish to learn more about them, but we've almost entirely lost touch.
Then making a nostalgic visit to my mother's family in our old hometown, near the cannon by the beautiful New Lexington, Ohio, courthouse, I meet a Mrs. Marquetti, who squeezes my hand. "You look just like your dad, and everybody loved Pete. He was so nice and so talented. Played saxophone in my father's band."
She nods. "At the old dance hall down the hill in the Italian section of town."
I tell her I remember Dad driving me down the steep hill into that area, meeting an Italian who had strings of garlic hanging on his garage, a large plot of tomatoes. We'd sometimes purchase our evening meal from him, exotic food for us, an actual metal pail full of spaghetti and a large jug of red, homemade wine.
"Dego red," she says. "That was my father. That was our house."
I drive down the steep hill but can't find the dance hall. A man in a Sohio station tells me it was demolished in the 1950s. And he laughs. "You'd have been surprised. It looked like a bowling alley from the outside."
My imagination pictures it and it seems familiar. Maybe I was there once. But my father played a saxophone? In a band? This is news to me, and I try to imagine him blowing a tune.
4. Loose Coal On The Side Of The Road
A few years later, after the funeral of an uncle's wife in Dad's hometown of New Straitsville, Ohio, my sister motions me into the food line in front of her, and as I accept her offer, glad for her company among those other Vernons whom she knows better than I do, she lunges forward, hugs me, kisses my cheek, steps away, and smiles, acting as if she hasn't seen me in years even though I drove her here.
What strange behavior. Is she going nuts?
She says, "I'm Kathleen. Your father's sister. Kathy. I'm your aunt."
Then I notice that her dress and hair style differ from my sister Joan's. Her face and build, though, seem exactly the same. I'm amazed. How strong are the Vernon genetics?
More amazing: Dad had a sister named Kathy. I didn't even know that. We snack together and chat. I learn that she lives in town. She's dad's youngest sibling, married with children of course of her own. But why are we just now meeting? I'm 54 years old.
She excuses herself and doesn't return. The warmth of her arms, her words and her kiss remain, but which are her children? What man is her husband? Where exactly is her home? Where is she now?
I search the crowd for her and end up talking with others of the Vernon clan. Aunt Kathy's sudden departure, though, has conditioned me to understand these meetings in a precise way. They seem just a way of passing the time. Habits, friendships, experience, as well as the more obvious geographical distances between their homes and mine separate us. Lack of interest too. My dad links us together, but nothing will grow from these random intersections.
5. An Underground Fire
A few days later, I ask Mom about Dad's siblings and receive a list I write down. It contains another aunt and uncle I can't remember ever meeting or hearing about. Mom tells me what she knows of them, but that's not much.
I complain that my memories of Dad have lost their specifics. They're dimming more every day, and it feels as if he's dying again though this loss is less dramatic than when it actually happened. Still, there's an impact. The mental crumbling is disruptive, jarring my sense of order and therefore my comfort.
Mom looks up from her plate, stares through thick glasses down the 30-some years since his burial, and remembers that the blind man Mr. Ward mailed her a tape recording of Dad explaining insurance options to the Ward family. Mr. Ward's note said he thought she might like the tape as a memento.
"What? The sound of Dad's voice is one of the things I've forgotten." The possibility of listening to him speak makes me choke on a dumpling, which I swallow whole. "I'll get the tape player. Is it in your attic? You get the tape. Let's play it right now."
"I don't have it."
"The tape recorder? The tape? What?"
"The tape. I threw it away. The day it came I listened to it all the way through, then burned it in the fireplace."
"Why?" I can only stare at her.
"It brought everything back." She stares as if pleading with me. "It was too painful."
I shake my head. "Didn't you think your children might want to preserve their father's voice?"
My mother cries in response, and those tears remind me that if I have hundreds of memories of Dad, she has thousands. Of course remembering can bring pain. She calms down and says the tape was an hour long. Dad explained some insurance policies on it. Then the Wards and he discussed other topics. She can't remember exactly what.
What might a tape like that have saved, what might Dad have said, what might I have learned about his thoughts on politics or a movie or something as mundane as trees, for God's sake? The tape might have revealed anything.
6. Apparition At The Mine's Entrance
Less than six months after that, an incident clarifies her motives. To visit her sole surviving sister, I drive her to New Lexington, then to a restaurant where we encounter my father. That is, one of Dad's brothers enters the same place by chance and passes our table. I'm facing the entrance but don't recognize him. Mom, however, says, "Buster?"
He turns and peers at her closely through thick glasses. "Ruth?"
He's old and of course very changed in appearance since my youth, but his voice immediately brings back my father's voice, the West Virginia/Kentucky blend of accents, the tone and rhythm of Dad's speech. Then physical things I've forgotten about my father appear in Buster: the way Dad stood with his weight on one leg, the way he moved his hands, the way he slouched, the contours and details of his face, particularly his mouth, the shape of his lips, his ears and chin. I couldn't be more shocked if Dad himself materialized.
While we dine together, Mom and Buster discuss people they both know, catching up on family and mutual acquaintances. I wish for a video camera and imagine letting the lens linger on Buster with close-ups. Tears come, like Mom's reaction to the audiotape, and I dab them away with a handkerchief. Buster, like my father, is a mystery to me, living on the edge of society in a cottage in the woods outside New Straitsville. Like the whole Vernon clan, he's what? Reclusive? That's it, reclusive, but I think, watching him and Mom talk, not wholly indifferent.
7. The Cave-In
My sister calls to tell me that my mother, now in her mid-80s, has "let the cat out of the bag." Joan thinks I'd probably want to know that my father did time in Chillicothe's federal prison. Probably want to know? This news is a revelation, a message from the burning bush. I promptly seek out my mother and ask for details. She becomes angry at herself for mentioning the truth to Joan and refuses to talk. I hurry back home and telephone Buster for details.
A little coaxing opens him up. One day in 1933, my father descended the ladder into an abandoned coal tunnel where my grandfather Vernon had a still. Federal officers were waiting below, and they seized Dad. He yelled, "Run! Revenuers!" to his brothers Buster and Hed at the ladder behind him. They ran. An officer climbed the ladder, screamed, "Stop!" and fired a shotgun at them. The brothers escaped unhurt and were never charged, but Dad was tried in the federal court in Columbus, convicted, and served 45 days in prison.
I go back to my mother, tell her what I've learned and ask for more information.
She takes a hanky out of her sleeve, dabs at her eyes, sniffles, settles into an easy chair, and shakes her head. "It was your grandfather's fault, letting your dad work on the still. I tried to talk him and Pete out of it. The worst thing, though, was his family didn't phone your father while he was locked up, didn't visit or write him. Didn't say a word to me, either, although I was pregnant with your sister. This happened only a few months after we were married."
"Maybe they didn't know you were pregnant."
"Oh, they knew all right." Her eyeglasses sparkle as she trains them on the wall behind me. "Those were very tough times for us. I gave all our savings, 227 dollars, to a lawyer to defend your father. He took the money but didn't help Pete one bit."
She stops and looks down at her lap.
I say, "Why didn't you tell me this before?"
She looks up at me. "What good would it do you? Or your father's reputation?" A tear drains down a cheek. "Pete looked like a corpse when he came home."
"Mom, Dad did nothing to be ashamed of. A conviction for moonshining is romantic. Hollywood makes movies about it."
She straightens up and grows rigid in her chair. "It's nothing to be proud of. People don't need to know your father was a con."
Dad was a convict to her? She's that afraid of what people think?
She tells me that after Dad's release and my sister's birth, they moved in with some very kind people, the Buckners, and Mom managed to find enough employment to pay bills, though just barely, working for the county's Public Works Administration (PWA), the "Relief Office." She was secretary to the manager Charley Bangham. I met Charley 30-some years after this boss-secretary relationship when he appeared in Lebanon to court Mom after Dad died. My brother John and I teased our mother about this new boyfriend without understanding the source of their friendship, which I now wonder about. Just how close had she and Charley been in those days? One thing I am sure of: my mother is a lot like the Vernons. All of them withheld information about Dad from me.
8. Smudges From Handling Coal
My understanding of Dad and his family changes. Dad had not implicated his brothers or father, and perhaps he received the conviction and sentence because of this refusal to cooperate with authorities. For Dad, Vernon blood was more important than the law. The other Vernons, according to Mom, showed no concern for Dad, nor her, during his incarceration. Maybe anger from this experience is why she seldom visited them and resented Grandma Vernon.
Furthermore, maybe antagonism toward the law lies behind the Vernon family's desire for privacy. They are all at least somewhat withdrawn. Dad, though, was friendly and outgoing. He won awards as a top insurance salesman, and when our church of St. Francis de Sales had fund-drives, even though he was not a Catholic, he often brought in more money than anyone else. People liked him. He was personable.
Was that outgoing personality just a mask? Obviously, he'd hidden his criminal past from his children and his friends in Lebanon. He'd worked hard to be part of the community, yet beneath this exterior did he resent social mores? I remember going with Dad to fetch coal during visits in Straitsville. We'd drive into the hills on deserted gravel roads to an isolated location where there might be one or two ramshackle buildings and railroad tracks, and we'd just take the coal. I asked once why we didn't pay for it. Dad replied that it was waste coal, discarded and forgotten. We were at an old tipple. The site was abandoned.
But I'd learned a lesson the hard way. "Did you get permission to take it?"
"No one cares," he said. "It's all right."
What is the truth? My strong belief in honesty hasn't come to me by chance. Dad and Mom have preached it forever.
By chance I meet a distant cousin, Glenn, at a writers' workshop in Kentucky, and he tells me about an old lady named Vernon who lives "in the house under the hill going toward Murray City" from Straitsville. To get to her dwelling you have to turn "up a cart track" and go a quarter-mile "behind the hill." I don't understand his language or the location, but I remember Grandma Vernon once telling her children to take extra greens or eggs or some such to a woman Grandma described as a hermit. That could be the same lady. Glenn also tells me about relatives living near places like Logan, Union Furnace, Tinker's Cave. He's heard rumors of relatives in Nelsonville being associated with "murder, penitentiary,...[some] wielding knives chasing relatives over the hills, adultery, and" there's been other gossip he's forgotten.
The mysteries of these relatives are a somber background to the mystery of Dad. Learning about them I seem to be learning about him. Glenn's stories lead me to check county records and newspapers. I find no mention of Vernons, but I do learn that from the late 1880s through the first decade of the 20th century, hundreds of crimes occurred in New Straitsville, including "numerous burglaries and petty thievery..., widespread fighting, particularly among drunks," and fatalities from "'Shooting . . . and . . . Cutting Affrays.'" There were "91 homicides ... between 1870 and 1900" in that part of the county, and "New Straitsville lost two popular marshals by violent death" (An Ohio Reader, VI, Smith, T.S., ed., William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.: 1975, 4).
The past can be partially dug up, and this history does relate to my father, but how? I visit my parents' side-by-side graves in New Lexington. Of course they are really not there as much as they are in people's minds and bodies, in memories and DNA. Moreover, some of us carry their influences in our attitudes, beliefs, moods and manners. No one can explain or understand those influences in much detail. Such connections to the past lie inside our personalities the way seams of coal lie inside the hills. Just as a forest covers the strip- and the deep-mining scars on those hills, time hides but does not obliterate the influence of the past on the present. There are clues: names, bloodlines, and stories. Some of it may disappear, but some of it survives.
Bill Vernon's poems, short stories and non-fiction have appeared in four poetry chapbooks, anthologies and journals such as Yankee, Albany Review, Cincinnati Review, Blue Unicorn, The Archer, Grasslands Review, Poetry Ohio: Special Issue Of The Cornfield Review, The Runner, Hemlocks And Balsams, and Passages North. Five Star Mysteries published his novel OLD TOWN in 2005.